The Study of Religion


Religion is a unified system of thoughts, feelings and actions that gives people something sacred to believe in, someone or some force that is worth sacrificing for, and an ethical code to live by. Most people agree on this broad definition of religion, though there are many differences in what individuals define as their own religion and the particular beliefs, rituals and institutions that comprise it.

Traditionally, scholars have approached the study of Religion from a number of different perspectives. For example, Edward Burnett Tylor (1871-1955) narrowly defined religion as “belief in spiritual beings,” an approach that he thought would limit the study to the beliefs of the world’s peoples. In contrast, Lucien Febvre (1878-1956) and Marc Bloch (also a founder of Annales, Histoire, Sciences Sociales) used a comparative methodology that opened the door to more modern developments in the study of Religion.

Some scholars use an open polythetic approach to the concept of Religion, arguing that it is useful to treat the notion as structurally fuzzy and temporally fluid in order to explore its properties more fully. Others, however, find it necessary to draw a line between real and lexical definitions of the term in order to distinguish between a stipulative definition, which specifies what the meaning of Religion is, and a descriptive definition, which describes how that meaning functions in a certain culture. Regardless of the approach taken, most scholars agree that the study of Religion must incorporate some degree of reflexive analysis.